Captain America: Civil War has so much ground to cover since it’s so many things. It’s a follow-up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best film in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) at the time, and I’m certain that fans expect it to be as amazing as its predecessor. Though it doesn’t reflect in the title, it’s also an Avengers movie since so many major superheroes – both returning and new – play an active role here. Then there’s the fact that it’s an adaptation of the Civil War storyline, which is perhaps the most well-known one from Marvel in the past decade. Therein lies an incredible amount of material to tackle, but the film confidently steps up to the task and triumphs spectacularly because every action it takes revolves around what makes superhero movies memorable and special: the characters.
After an Avengers operation in Lagos, Nigeria results in collateral damage and civilian casualties, the United Nations pushes forward the Sokovia Accords, which would place the team under the oversight of an international governing body. The Accords split the superheroes: Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), feeling guilty over the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, supports the measure, while Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) is distrustful of organizations with agendas and believes it’s better to have the Avengers operate on their own. A bombing in Vienna, Austria fractures them even further, particularly when Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) appears to be the perpetrator. As each Avenger takes a side, they realize that inevitably, they will come to blows with one another, and in this conflict, victory will have a bitter taste.
Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, as well as screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, know how to deliver a payoff, and they do it big time here. The plot isn’t as tight compared to that of Winter Soldier since there are some coincidences and conveniences that tie all the proceedings together, but with this film, they don’t matter nor stick out as much once we see the results, and that’s where the filmmakers strike gold; for once, the destination matters more than the journey, and the destination itself wildly exceeds expectations and hits home on a sheer emotional level. It’s fascinating how the story functions as both a Captain America movie and an Avengers movie. It’s certainly a continuation of Steve’s character arc that was first established in The First Avenger, and his choices drive the narrative. He also has two strong characters to grow and work off of in Tony and Bucky, and the film gives both of them a compelling arc. Then you factor in the rest of the Avengers, and the sheer number of them alone makes this an Avengers movie. It’s a lot to work in, but the filmmakers find a place for each of them in this grand tale, as they help it proceed and have a hand in delivering the payoffs.
When Marvel Studios first announced the title for this film, I honestly found myself a tad bit disappointed. When I read the Civil War series years ago, I knew that I wanted nothing more than to see this storyline come to life on the big screen in all of its glory and scale. By that, I mean that I wanted to see dozens upon dozens of superheroes and supervillains duking it out in epic sequences. In hindsight, I concede that my vision for a movie adaptation of Civil War is unrealistic for the medium of cinema, as it’s perhaps better suited for a television series. But that’s not the point here – what I didn’t account for at the time is what exactly makes that storyline riveting, which brings me to the characters themselves.
The characters serve as the foundation for Civil War, and everything works because of them. In the film, there are a dozen superheroes, so it may seem that the scale of this conflict here is small compared to that of the comics. There’s some truth in that perception, but having that amount of characters allows their emotions and relationships to power the entire story. The experience of watching the action and drama unfold is made all more the richer by the 12 movies that set them up and made them into the people they are by this film. The stakes may be small, but they matter so much since we are by now familiar with the characters and their relationships with each another. That makes the film incredibly engaging and human, since their actions dictate who they will become as well as their relationships, and we’re invested in those every second of the way. The world may not be under the threat of destruction or takeover, but no matter what, these characters will be changed forever, and no one’s a winner. The film’s emphasis on the characters also allows for an intelligently incorporated villain in Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). The nature of this plot sure doesn’t require a villain, but the filmmakers use Zemo effectively, as he naturally fits within their vision for this story.
Since the film has us invested in its characters, it’s able to handle and portray the ideological conflict masterfully. The marketing campaign may be encouraging fans to choose a side on social media with tags like #teamcap or #teamironman, but the reality is, the conflict isn’t black and white; it’s downright difficult to take one side or the other. The Avengers may initially choose a side because of an ideology they adhere to, but as the film progresses, we see that personal reasons play a role in their choice, and by the end, perhaps that ideology doesn’t matter anymore. Ultimately, we can only watch the conflict unfold and wish that they would stop fighting, as no one is right or wrong. That is an empathetic and genius storytelling decision by the filmmakers; why should we have to choose a side when we can instead understand why each character is fighting and also see how ego or personal preference can blind them?
The usual suspects once again prove why we love their characters so much. It took me a while to realize that Evans really is extraordinary as Steve, and it shows in the nuances of his performance. We know what the character’s qualities and spirit are, and Evans brings those to light in the ways that he interacts with and reacts to his fellow cast members. Tony goes down a dark path in the film, and that gives Downey the opportunity to deliver a deeply complex turn, which he seizes by portraying how inner demons can make his character outright nasty at times. Stan taps into Bucky’s anguish to highlight the tragedy that he is, and his quiet scenes with Steve prove to be quite affecting due to their chemistry, where words don’t need to be said. As for the rest of the already established Avengers, it’s clear that they have certain roles to play in this story, and their performers knock them out of the park. Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) have and share a number of emotional scenes, and they absolutely own them by highlighting their character’s guilt and inquisitiveness respectively. Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie are superb at balancing head and heart as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow and Sam Wilson / Falcon. Paul Rudd, comfortable in a comic relief role, steals his scenes as Scott Lang / Ant-Man. Don Cheadle and Jeremy Renner have the least prominent screen time as James Rhodes / War Machine and Clint Barton / Hawkeye, but they deftly let their characters’ personalities speak for themselves.
It’s not a Marvel film unless there are new characters to introduce – this film has three, and the actors playing them are excellent. Chadwick Boseman brings the long-awaited T’Challa / Black Panther to life, and his performance can only be described as something you stare at in wonder. His soft voice hints at a peaceful demeanor, but when his emotions and regal authority come through, he turns into a cool, determined head who’s eager to fight. Tom Holland is the latest actor to play Peter Parker / Spider-Man, and while many have called him the best Peter Parker and Spider-Man to grace the big screen yet, I’d say the jury is still out until Spider-Man: Homecoming hits screens next year since the true test of an actor playing this role is to carry his own movie. However, I will say that based on his scenes here, Marvel have found a real winner to take up the mantle. He’s awkward in a very endearing way, and when he’s in the suit, he’s rip-roaringly hilarious. Finally, there’s Brühl, who quietly goes about his business and interacts with people politely in public, but in closed spaces where his deeds are unveiled, the actor reveals a dark and nefarious will.
Hands down, of all the superhero movies to have come out so far, Civil War has the best action scenes because they’re so much fun. Each sequence is breathless in its execution and astounding to witness. The filmmakers – who had John Wick directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski on board as second unit directors – pull no punches, as they aren’t just content with showing merely the impact of blows landing; no, they also show the follow-through, which usually involves characters slamming into walls with such force that can shatter bone. The stunt work alone is elaborate and smooth, and is an evolution over that in The Winter Soldier. What truly makes these scenes shine, though, are the characters involved. The dynamic they share allows one to know the abilities of the other, and the way they team up to take someone down is inventive and spectacular. Making these even better is how they let their personalities come through in such setpieces, as they deliver witty lines and engage in banter. If you thought the fight scenes were cool in the Avengers films, they’re cranked up to a delightful, crowd-pleasing 11 here.
While the film’s credits ran, I was confronted with a question that I grappled with long after it had finished: is this the best superhero film? For me (and much to my friends’ chagrin and disbelief), that title has long belonged to Sam Raimi’s near-masterpiece Spider-Man 2, but for the first time in quite a while, I wondered whether this film pipped it to the post. I thought about whether Civil War would come out on top of any superhero movie categories besides action scenes. Is it the best directed superhero film? No, Spider-Man 2 is. Does it have the best individual character arc? No, that’s found in Spider-Man 2. Best performances? No, The Dark Knight shows how a strong supporting cast can make a superhero film. Best villain? No, Spider-Man 2. Best ending? No, The First Avenger. Best cinematography? No, The Dark Knight. Best score? No, The Dark Knight. Best scene? No, Spider-Man 2 has the top two (Peter telling Aunt May the truth about Uncle Ben’s death and this powerful moment). It does, however, rank first in the category that matters most: commitment to characters. As I previously mentioned, characters are the most important thing about any superhero film, and this is the one film that builds out from them and never misses a chance to develop them. It recognizes them as the source of all its strength and works to enhance them all the more, without ever compromising its tone and vision. That commitment is so strong that whatever quibbles I have with the film (and I do, albeit very minor ones) are easily forgivable and hardly matter by the end because the payoff from it is just that compelling and memorable. It’s a rich experience from beginning to end, and that’s why I conclude that the film is indeed the best superhero film.
With Captain America: Civil War, everything revolves around the characters. They are heart of this film, and any moment we share with them – from the quiet, reflective moments to the brazen, vibrant action sequences – is a heartbeat. Sometimes that heart beats quickly, sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes it’s steady. At any given point, no matter what the rate is, it beats, and it allows everything else to function. That means the film is alive. And boy, is it proud to be alive. Bravo, Marvel. Bravo.
* Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures